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Frequent travelers get a new way to keep files mobile

Mobile devices and cloud storage have a symbiotic relationship. The fact that you keep things on a central server makes your choice of device almost irrelevant because hey, cool, the service can push your data down to you wherever you are, no matter what device you’re using.

Good, but mobile devices and the cloud both kind of suck at handling files. Putting a movie on my iPad via iTunes involves way too many steps, even though it ought to be as simple as copying a file.

I could copy it to the cloud and then suck it back down into my iPad over my home WiFi. Or hope I can find WiFi when I get to the place where I want to watch my movie and that it’ll take less time to download the movie than it took to make it.

Putting files on an Android phone or tablet isn’t quite so difficult because many of them have SD card slots and all of them can make their file directories available to a laptop over USB. But even if your device has been blessed with this kind of convenience, do you have 1.3 gigabytes of free space on your 16 gigabyte phone or tablet? Doesn’t it gall you that you need to wipe out one or two of your games to make room for a movie that you intend to watch just once during a three-day trip?

“Big deal,” you scoff (you horrible scoffer. SCOFFER, I say!). “I just use the cloud for documents.”

Cool. Do you have such complete trust in a server that you don’t control that you’re willing to put any document up there?

If your password or the service’s validation system is weak, then any stranger can get his or her hands on your Documents folder. You should be concerned about that. Even you count yourself among the proud statistical majority of Americans who aren’t running an interstate dogfighting operation.

Plus, the good Lord has a way of sensing how badly you need a certain file and then making sure that when the critical hour comes, you’re in an Internet blackout zone.

(“THAT’ll teach him to scoff at Andy Ihnatko!” God mutters.)

SanDisk Connect goes a long way towards eliminating the pain of mobile files by adding WiFi to familiar flash storage devices. SanDisk Connect Wireless Flash Drive ($59 for 32 gigs of storage, $49 for 16) comes in the form of a USB stick. SanDisk Connect Wireless Media Drive ($99 for 64 gigs, $79 for 32) is a little metal puck the size of a pad of Post-Its that connects to your PC via micro-USB cable.

When they’re plugged into USB, they behave like any other storage device. But when they’re on their own, they become battery-powered WiFi access points that make all of your files available to your mobile devices wirelessly.

It’s not quite like a wireless network file server. Your phone or tablet can only connect to it via SanDisk’s client apps (available for iOS and Android). The app behaves like a browser for the files on the device and as streaming media player.

(Your laptop can also connect to it via a web browser. But that’s boring. I’ll focus on mobile devices from here on out.)

I’ll start off with an explanation of the “streaming media player” functions because they’re simple and fantabulous. If there’s a non-DRMed music or video file stored on the Connect and your phone or tablet’s OS knows how to handle its media format, tap it and it’ll start playing after just a brief delay. If it’s an audio file, it’ll also play in the background while you switch back to your mail client.

The Connect app is functional as a media player but it’s not exactly polished. It won’t import your existing playlists, though it does let you arrange playlists on-device. And I can maybe understand why it doesn’t show video thumbnails, but why can’t I see the album art on most of my music files?

But make no mistake: the streaming feature alone makes the Connect a highly desirable gadget for the frequent traveler. It’s the perfect place to keep all of the albums and videos that you like to have available, but which you don’t use frequently enough to justify sacrificing some of your phone or tablet’s limited internal storage space.

In addition to expanding your phone or tablet’s storage, the Connect addresses aforementioned weariness of iPad and iPhone content management. Copy five gigabytes of movies and nineteen Microsoft Office files from your desktop to the Connect and then leave. No need to add things to your iTunes library, no need to then tell iTunes what you’d like to individually sync.

Onward to the file browsing functions. Like I said, it’s not like the Connect is a legit wireless file server. If it were, it would be attached a volume and treated like any other storage device. But that only happens when it’s connected to your desktop or laptop via USB.

Instead, the client app acts as a navigable file browser for the Connect’s content. What can you then do with those files? Well, it depends on the operating system.

Android gives users and apps access to the file system, and it also allows broad, system-wide interaction between apps. This makes the Connect way more useful with an Android phone or tablet than on an iPhone or an iPad. If I’ve put a Word file on the Connect, I can open it in any Android app that supports that file format. I can also send it to any app that knows how to work with files in general (like Dropbox). I can copy it to my mobile device’s local file storage, so that I’ll have the file even when the Connect isn’t available.

I can also take anything on my Android phone or tablet’s internal storage and copy it to the Connect, where other devices can see and use the file.

(Which could come in handy. Both flavors of the Connect can support multiple simultaneous users. You can stream different movies to each of the kids in the backseat of your car.)

iOS is tightly sandboxed. The iOS Connect client app can “share” any file from the browser to any iOS app that knows how to deal with that specific file type. So: if you’ve copied a Word file to the Connect, you’ll be able to import it into Pages for editing.

You can’t do much else. iOS’ photo library is accessible to any iOS app, so sure, you can copy image files from the Connect to internal storage. But that’s about it.

Which doesn’t mean that the Connect isn’t of much use to iPhone or iPad users. It’s just that I spent a week or two using the Connect and I wish I could do as much with it with my iPad as I could with my Android phone.

Those limitations aren’t SanDisk’s fault … unlike the Connect’s slightly clumsy client app. During my testing, it often required a force-quit, and some simple administrative actions required me to disconnect from Connect and reconnect to its WiFi. The app isn’t exactly bad, but it isn’t exactly polished, either.

The other bummer of Connect: it connects via WiFi, and your phone or tablet only has one WiFi radio. So, no, you can’t connect to your local WiFi network and the Connect at the same time. Connecting to the Connect also disconnects you from the mobile broadband Internet on your phone or tablet.

(Personal aside: by far, the biggest bummer of the Connect is the name. Please, for God’s sake, hardware makers. Never ever choose a name that’s the same as the verb that describes what this thing does. You’re making life needlessly hard for tech writers. Our lives are plenty difficult as it is. I’ve got betas of three different operating systems here and none of them are pleased with the attention I’ve been giving to the other two.)

There’s a workaround to the “no Internet while using the Connect” problem: if you put the Connect on your WiFi network, it’ll pass those network signals (including Internet) through to your phone or tablet. You just need to use the Connect client app to connect the Connect (and password-authenticate it) to the network first.

It works. The process is clumsy enough that I’m more inclined to connect to the Connect …

(DAMN you, SanDisk product name choosers!)

… get the files I need, and then disconnect. And, the scheme won’t work with public WiFi networks that authenticate through a webpage, like what you’d find in most hotels. But if you want to stream music from Connect while catching up on mail, the good news is that this is indeed technically possible.

Connect’s WiFi signal is powerful enough to travel fifty yards and penetrate walls. So, it’s important to secure it with a WPA password and encryption, like any other base station. Any attempt I made to access the Connect’s files as an unauthorized user dead-ended as soon as I tried to join its protected WiFi network.

Setting a password is damned important with this device due to a hole that’s documented in SanDisk’s setup guide. If you leave the Connect’s WiFi network open (no password required), then anyone with a copy of the SanDisk Connect client app can connect to it and see your files. There’s no further authentication needed.

That weakness also extends to the WiFi passthrough feature on open networks. If you connect the Connect to a WiFi router that isn’t password-secured, then any other user on that network with the app can browse its files, even if the Connect itself is WPA-secured.

This would be Bad. Don’t connect the Connect to a WiFi router that isn’t password-secured.

And remember that “securing” the Connect is a relative concept, anyway. If somebody gains physical access to it, they can just plug it into any USB port and get access to everything.

SanDisk is a leading maker of memory cards. So it comes as no surprise that both the Wireless Flash Drive and the Wireless Media Drive incorporate memory cards. The USB-sticklike Flash Drive uses a micro-SD card for its storage. The drive doesn’t really care where the card came from, either. You can swap the card that shipped inside the Connect for the micro-SD from inside your phone, and quickly access your phone’s files via WiFi. Or, keep a bunch of micro cards in your wallet for nigh-unlimited storage.

The Media Drive has something much cooler: a full-sized SD card slot in addition to its own built-in storage. Pop in a relatively cheap 64 gig card and you’ve doubled its maximum onboard storage.

Pop in the card from your camera, and you’ve just found one of the easiest ways imaginable to import photos to your tablet or phone.

Importing photos is a serious pain point for iPad users. Apple sells a Camera Connection Kit that includes USB and SD Card inputs. The primary function of these adapters is to generate “The attached accessory uses too much power” error messages. The iPad USB adapter is only 100% reliable if I plug the camera into a powered USB hub and then connect the hub to the iPad. The SD card reader? It’s almost completely useless.

But the Connect Media Drive makes photo transfers easy and reliable. Inside the client app, I can select JPEGs from the camera card and then send them straight into my iPad’s photo library. The only missing feature is the ability to copy unsupported file formats (like Camera RAW files) to internal storage.

The Android app lets me copy any file from the SD card to the phone or tablet … RAW included. Better yet: I can copy the card’s contents to the Media Drive’s own internal storage. I can then erase the card and free up its space for the next day’s shooting, without filling up my Android device. Nice.

SanDisk Connect are by no means perfect storage devices. Nor are they useful for everybody.

But anyone who travels a lot and who usually has a tablet with them when they do should take a close look at these. They’re so tiny that they’ll slip into any pocket. And their batteries last long enough that keeping them charged and ready by no means a chore, even if you don’t use them for several days.

And they can just flat-out make your life better. I travel with my iPad as my sole computer, and my chief complaints are its lack of expandable storage and the difficulty of getting files into the thing without docking it to a computer. I feel like the SanDisk Connect Media Drive reduces those problems by at least 85%.

I’ll take a couple of trips with this loaner just to make sure, but I’m guessing that (like the iPad) the Media Drive will join that short list of devices that I reviewed and then had to buy for myself.